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In Her Shambles

Elizabeth Parker
ISBN-13: 
9781781724460
Publication Date: 
Monday, April 30, 2018
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‘Wonderfully lucid and economical... precise and delicate in its use of language’ – Andrew Taylor

'This is a radiantly-written and vigorous collection by a rising star of British poetry.’
– David Morley (winner of The Ted Hughes Award)

‘Vibrant, thriving ... To me, this book elevates, celebrates women’ – Wales Arts Review

‘Hers is a dexterous poetry of confidently conjured atmospheres and moods, at once elusive and heady with lyric invention. She has a canny way with the repeated phrase and a technical control that's impressive yet lightly worn . Parker's debut is, without doubt, a fine thing to be both celebrated and admired.’
– Martin Malone, 
The Interpreter's House

In Her Shambles is a celebration of women, families and nature, astonishing in its originality’ – SkyLightRain

In Her Shambles is Elizabeth Parker’s first full collection of poems. From the first poem ‘Crockery’, where a potential lover, in surrealist fashion, seems to fragment into reflections on a dinner table, we have a key to this author’s style: verb-rich, active, observational, things-seen-aslant. Poem two gives us more clues: the engaging metaphor of a father as a ‘rescuer’ is played out. Parker likes to regularly burst out of the one-page lyric, and often extends her metaphors over two or more pages. With more ground to cover, she can vary her physics from minute inspections to eagle-eyed overviews.

There is a visceral quality to the imagery: we are revealed and celebrated as creatures of the body: of flesh, blood, bone and ‘juices’. In the marvelous ‘Rivers’, family members are assigned their own distinctive bodies of water: “My sister’s brook is root beer with rot/ the dead giving up their tannins/ letting riches from their skins…”. There is a poem where two women on a bus examine and comment upon their aging hands and there is also a long poem, ‘Manus’ that is an intriguing and amusing investigation of the hand and its role in human history.

Heroines of various sorts often appear in these poems, most pointedly Lavinia from ‘Titus Andronicus’ (which might well rival ‘Macbeth’ as Shakespeare’s equivalent of a slasher-flick). Parker appropriates this outrageous tale and re-imagines it with an empowering twist: Lavinia will now not be stopped from pulling the stitches out of her tongue and trying to write using her own blood as ink. In ‘She Paints Him’ a man is subject to ‘the female gaze’ and he must take on the colours she picks. But these poems are less self-consciously political and feminist than they are carefully empathetic and human.

Likewise, in certain poems like ‘Ghosts’ and ‘Sand Cat’ there is a surrealist overlap between imagery from the natural world and the human/animal interactions. The result is an artful enactment of paradox and mystery. We must imagine ourselves with the intruder who breaks into a shed for shelter, as well as the mysterious cat whose reflections inhere in the landscape.

In Her Shambles is a notable debut from a talented young author.

 

REVIEWS

Review by Robert Peake, Poetry Salzburg Review

Friday, October 25, 2019

Elizabeth Parker’s debut collection In Her Shambles celebrates the world with youthful exuberance. Here is a poetry firmly rooted in the present tense, alive with verbs. “Clasp” (10) begins “She scrunches onion paper / pinches a tooth of garlic from its husk” and ends with “wood curling to ringlets / lead peppering her palm.” Things happen in these poems, and happen now.

Often, they happen to “you” – either as a second-person narration or speaker’s address. In “Sipped” (11), “you’re burning weeds” and “brambles sprinkle your arms with nicks.” Parker’s is a poetry where “pipes click at night” (“Clean”, 56) and “we roll our sleeves / dip our arms elbow deep.” (“Stalking the Poet”, 40). It is a relational poetry, full of “I”, “you”, and “we”.

Yet these poems also cast a romantic and nostalgic eye over art and ageing, love and desire. In “Station”, the speaker’s love of Edinburgh and departure from her beloved are interspersed with lyrics from Kavanagh’s “Ragland Road” as set to a bagpipe’s drone. So Parker courts and stalks moments of poetry, and in “Stalking the Poet” (38) once again it is “we” who “press our palms onto crushed grass / straining to straighten its blades / where he knelt to wash his pen.” (40)

The romance of art and artistry extends further to the piano as musical object (“Manus”, 33-35, “Piano”, 37) as well as in regarding the aged. In “Hands” the speaker observes two women noticing “this fine work / blood in relief when we turn our wrists / ink-blue and hard.” In “10.30 to Severn Beach”, the speaker strikes up conversation with a woman whose “ankles were threaded with dark veins” and whose reminiscences she collects affectionately: “she didn’t want to keep me // I wanted to keep her.”

In some sense, all of Parker’s poems could be regarded as love-letters to the wider world, arranged by specific moment. Here is a promising young poet in a strong debut, capturing moments of poetry with her sensual, personal, and observational verse.

Review by Carla Scarano D'Antonio, WriteOutLoud

Monday, August 5, 2019

There are no happy endings in this collection. The poems analyse past, upsetting relationships in symbolic imagery that refers to a natural world, and often gardens that are invaded by weeds. She observes and describes in detail, with a proliferation of beguiling images that are always to the point. In some of her poems, the author reverses the male gaze, making herself the subject who perceives, loves, suffers and judges.

In a feminine perspective of endurance, the figure of Lavinia, from Titus Andronicus, is evoked. Similarly to the poet, she keeps writing despite her hands having been cut off and her tongue severed:

 

    her new language

     scribbling from her mouth

     her wrists

     her fluent heart.

           (‘Following Lavinia’, III. Paul)

 

     They took her tongue, her hands

     so she tried to write with driftwood, sand.

                  (‘Following Lavinia’, VI. Their Names)

 

Lavinia’s story is a brutal example of abuses perpetrated on women. She is violently raped, her tongue and hands are cut off, and she is then executed. The poet, reflecting on her own sense of amputated self, keeps writing, communicating like Lavinia, weaving, tracing her thoughts “over chairs, walls, floors” (‘Lavinia Writes’). The recurrent motif of ‘hands’ - Lavinia’s amputated hands, but also referring to the Grimm story of the girl without hands - also reveals the marks of hard work, and resonances of grievances, and of the passing of time:

 

     On the bus two women show each other their hands

     brush one finger along another

 

     pause above a joint to strum creases

     in skin they’ve worn so long

     they admire and grieve the time it keeps

     …

     but we keep finding new detail in our hands

     wrinkles, shallows between ridged veins.

 

     We hadn’t noticed this fine work

     blood in relief when we turn our wrists

     ink-blue and hard.

                                                 (‘Hands’)

 

Hands also imply the use of weapons, the hand of the executioner and the smooth hand of the seducer, two faces of the same coin that conspire in love:

 

     I spent the afternoon

     reading about our ancient hands

     an essay arguing their evolution for use of weapons

     not fruit-picking or peaceful tools.

     …

     I follow your piano fingers

     honed for three million years.

     My skin remembers seduction

     you tapped time on my spine

     altered my rhythm

     lifted fine threads

     until my blood re-tuned.

                                   (‘Manus’)

 

The hands of the pianist are the hands that can hold a life-threatening weapon, and the hands of the lover make her blood shimmer when he touches her. Passion and death merge in the Scottish ballad ‘O I’ve loved too much’, leaving the forsaken woman lost and lonely, gathering and shaping her dead, ‘suck[ing] on fingers, paws, toes’ (‘My Black Gardens’).

Parker’s poetry has a fragmented quality that renders her shattered feelings through symbolic imageries that work as metaphors and convey powerful emotions:

 

     I spent a day reading deep water

     fish six thousand metres down

     making light in their skin.

     …

     I watched him

     as light without source

     selected parts of his body.

 

     It was as if he was glowing

     making light in his skin.

 

     I still held the afterimage

     of the day’s page

     its glossy ink, flashing fish.

                             (‘Ghosting’)

 

     I can’t look at you. I keep my eyes on crockery

     notice you are split between glass, chrome, china

     your index finger a pink glow in the saltcellar’s skirt

     face a pale glaze on white plates.

                                                        (‘Crockery’)

 

Although the poet reveals a damaged self marked by break-ups and exhausted by unrequited love, she is in control. her sensual female gaze is the subject of the relationship, not the object:

 

     fills in his lips with different reds

     daubing the brush for a full mouth.

 

     He pales while she mixes a wash

     for his skin: cream, watered pink.

     …

     She slides a hand beneath him,

     finds his shirt soaked in heat

     where his blood has pooled.

 

     Paint exhales its linseed.

     Colours begin to fix.

                           (‘She Paints Him’)

 

She is the painter, not the model, the poet, not the muse. In spite of her ‘Black Gardens’, “New paint begins to blend/Gardenia rolled over our touch” and “the magnolia intact/still generous in its second flowering”. Wounded but alive, the poet recovers her tongue:

 

     She punctured the cartridge

     squeezed until dark blue words

     slid into the slit of the nib.

                        (‘Writing Him Out’)

 

She is a healed Lavinia that magically reassembles her pieces. She rescues herself and “swallowed him down for good” (‘Writing Him Out’), in an almost cannibalistic act that changes the stories and reaffirms her power as a human, as a woman and as a poet.

Review by John Perrott Jenkins, The Cardiff Review

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

THE TIGHTLY WOVEN POEMS in Elizabeth Parker’s debut collection emerge from acute observation and a highly critical intelligence that plays with the power of language to define, evade, examine, subvert and pronounce. In Her Shambles ranges widely, but never haphazardly, for its subjects and significances: from the seemingly mundane ("10.30 To Severn Beach"—neither homage to nor parody of the western 3.10 to Yuma); the unambiguously literary (Shakespeare, Chatterton, Dante Gabriel Rossetti); the engagingly direct ("Rescues"); and the tantalisingly oblique ("Dry"). But while there is no obvious theme in Parker’s collection, there is the emergence of a confident and accomplished voice.

If one of the duties of the poet is to make us see the world afresh, then Parker’s imagery is capable of rescuing us from the expected to introduce the new. In "Rescues", an homage to her father’s kindness to animals and to his daughters, for instance, pipistrelle bats become "black fruits he gently unpeeled/to show us the wings laced with limbs". Birds, mice and shrews are rescued from the "white portcullis of the cat’s teeth". In "Sipped" a chicken cooking in the oven is "sweating to a crisp". This is no enamelled "poesy", a striving for effect. Parker is an acute observer of objects, relationships and moods, with a canny skill in exploiting the associative power of extended metaphors to unpick the trajectory of a relationship.

As to form, Parker favours stanzaic free verse, predominantly unrhymed and often sparsely punctuated. Consider this stanza from "Piano":

Every week we sat beside a tutor
with a strand off spittle
strung between her long front teeth.

Resonance and unity through phonic chiming, striking images and subtle cadence nail dislike of the tutor through simple physical description.

Poems such as "Rescues" and "Home to the Garden Centre The Forest of Dean" assume a seemingly straightforward autobiographical "my" and "we", respectively. And in "Clasp" and "Clean", Parker writes touchingly in elegiac mood on loss and evocations of the absent partner prompted by everyday material objects; his clasp knife in "Clasp" and a lingering scent of Aramis aftershave in "Clean". However, one of her more observable fascinations is with pronouns such as "she" and "he", which at once cunningly suggest identity but limit specific identification. Her intriguing "White Vase", for example, is a poem about introversion, power and pathology communicated through the voice of a detached observer. A female potter "blooms" a vase, in which the "he" of the poem is a shadowy figure who remains distanced throughout: she would "not let him near it". "She never drops his shop bouquet/ through its slim neck", preferring her own "garden flowers and leggy weeds". Parker’s ability to charge factual detail with inner energy and implication is wonderfully apparent in the closing verses. The vase becomes a reflection of the potter’s possessiveness: "Even a window/ reflected on its glaze/ annoys her". Does the vase represent her desire for inviolable perfection; her emotional sterility; her desire to control; her fear of intimacy after personal violation—"the vase is the only place she can keep unmarked"? And we wonder if she is the agent or the victim in the relationship. To be told would be to "own" the poem. Parker wisely remains silent, and lets the poem work its suggestive magic.

Parker also loves the ambiguity of first person pronouns that lack specific gender definition. The dynamic between “I” and “you” or “him” in several poems challenges the gender assumptions we make when we read. In "Lasagne", for instance, the "I" figure is engaged in preparing an evening meal for "him", as he "pulls a cord/ turning blinds". Read one way, they are a man and woman engaged in mundane everyday events, and it is a poem about comforting and rather loving routine. Read another, they are an observation on the assigning of culturally determined roles within an inter-gender relationship: "I peg pasta/ between fingers and thumbs/ lay it down for him". Read yet another way, there is nothing to say that the "I" figure is not another male, in which case the poem’s gender dynamic shifts markedly to indicate that those culturally determined roles are under threat. Parker delights in exploiting the capacity of such language to be at once seemingly direct yet tantalisingly evasive. It invites us to ponder how we read, and reminds us that we bring to our reading, to language, all kinds of unexamined assumptions, convictions, prejudices even.

Parker approaches the same topic in "Manus", a poem named for the Latin word for hands. The domestic location is precisely established: the observer scrutinises the hands of the lover playing the piano. The poem meditates on the extraordinary uses of the human hand, but focuses finally on its power for erotic stimulation, and possible dissimulation. The observer pads "fingertips over creases/ in the spongy saddle of your thumb", but "shimmers/ when you touch my face/ with a pressure light as petals". Touch is connection, a kind of intimacy. And yet, the "I" poses the uneasy question: "How much do you hold back/ distilled in fingertips?". Parker never specifies the gender of the "I" and the "you"—who is the watcher, who the watched? Are both female, both male, a man and a woman, in which case which is which? Instead, she invites the reader to consider another, more intimate, example of the hand as agent of power: "conspiring to do nothing more/ than quicken my pulse".

Elsewhere, in poems like "Chatelaine", "She Paints Him", and "Writing Him Out", Parker connects women with the creative arts, especially writing, and power. "Writing Him Out" offers a variation on the "I’m gonna wash that man right out of my hair" thread of female retribution, but instead of shampoo Parker’s "I" uses the cathartic power of language to clean in water the nib she has used in writing him out of her life, so that "The plughole glugged up stained water/ then swallowed him down for good".

Parker’s interest in woman as both victim and communicator is further explored through the fate of Lavinia, Titus’s virginal daughter, in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. In the play, Demetrius reminds Chiron on the morning of a hunt that they "hope to pluck a dainty doe to ground", the doe being Lavinia: the male as unconscionable predator. Later, after brutally raping her, they cut off her tongue and hands to silence her. Lavinia defiantly uses every means possible to identify her violators, and in this way "writes". In Parker’s poems "Following Lavinia" and "Lavinia Writes", Lavinia as victim and avatar, the urge to communicate, and the poems’ tightly controlled rhythmic forms coalesce to shattering effect.

"Following Lavinia" comprises four short, sequential poems charting Parker’s developing relationship with the Lavinia figure. The first three, all "I" poems, reference John, Neil, and Paul whose behaviour as men is framed by Parker’s persistent reading about or watching in performance the hunt scene in Titus where the two male characters seal Lavinia’s fate. It is a fascination bordering on obsession. The first poem,"John", is set "after John moved out". No hint is given as to the reason, but through the poem’s oblique method the pain of his departure is communicated through lingering attachment to spaces he occupied and objects he touched: "I read the hunt while spotting grazes on paint/ pale patches on the carpet/ mapping where his furniture stood". The implication is of betrayal, abandonment and loneliness, a withdrawal into oneself after being hurt and, through the hunt as trope, a sense of being, like Lavinia, merely an object in male eyes.

Neil, directing the play at the Edinburgh Festival, "refused to cut her uncle’s elegy/ to her limbs, her voice". Lavinia’s uncle Marcus’s elegiac speech on the horror of what has happened to her is fifty seven lines long and often cut from productions, but thoughtful Neil "laid the lyric gently on her cheek", and stands in opposition to the shadowy John.

A hungover Paul leaves a screened production when "they staked [Lavinia] out/ on silvered wetland". For the "I" subject it is a moment of revelation regarding Paul’s deficiencies, but is more than compensated for her by Lavinia’s "new language/ scribbling from her mouth/ her wrists/ her fluent heart"; "scribbling" not "dribbling", such a small but wonderfully resonant touch. In a manner of speaking, Lavinia "writes". In the final poem,"Their Names", she actually does. The poem is prefaced by a stage direction from the play; "She takes the staff in her mouth, and guides it with her stumps, and writes". Parker switches the viewpoint from the "I" to the "she" in this poem, and the focus is directly on Lavinia as exemplar of the woman determined to express herself, even if foiled on this occasion when the sea "blanked the beach to a nonsense of weed".

"Lavinia Writes" is a blasting, surreal, first-person lyric in which it is almost as though the "I" subject and Lavinia become indissolubly merged. It rejects all attempts by the sinister "they" to conventionalise and contain women’s insistence on expressing themselves. "I am told ... I refuse". It is a voice like nothing else in Parker’s collection, a voice of controlled fury and inviolable intent. The "I" subject picks "at the stitches/ in the root of my stolen tongue" and writes in blood: "words pump/ breach the dam/ fill fibres, glut pores". Compromise is rejected: "They sew me up again/ offer a fountain pen./ I refuse ink,/ tear their neat stitcheries". It is self-expression through willing self-violation—"I tear more, free more/ until I am fluent"—and it is terrifying, exhilarating and unstoppable.

In this collection, Parker’s poems pulse with strong feeling filtered through a cool intellect. We see her establishing distinctive styles and tones across a range of subjects. In "Hues", she suspends her fascination with words as forensic tools for immersion in natural colours, "a fusion of greens", but nonetheless promises: "We would return to names". After reading this fine collection, let us hope so.

Review by David C. Ward, PN Review

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

 

Looking up definitions of ‘shambles’ for this review, I find that it usually means ‘wreckage’ or ‘mess’ (an archaic meaning is the killing floor of a butcher’s) but that there is a usage in which it is pridefully applied to gardens whose display is a seemingly artless cascade of surprising beauty. I like the idea of adopting Shambles as a term, like Folly or Ha Ha, for landscape gardening. I suspect Elizabeth Parker would too not least since turned into a verb, ‘shambling’, the term (rhyming with rambling) also means a kind of purposeless or awkward walk or gait. In gardening or poetry, then, ‘shambles’, as demonstrated by Parker, is an oxymoron, a seemingly accidental yet entirely purposeful aesthetic reconstruction of what she encounters. As we know, there is nothing natural about landscape. Rather it’s how we design and arrange it: ‘While he stayed shut, her throat bloomed / long-stemmed flowers / threading their colors through a breeze.’ Or in ‘Dry’ a river is unclogged: 

You sleeked my snarls of algae 
brought a lush hiss to my throat 
brown trout wafting their bodies. 

It’s not all blooms and flowage though as nature is as much muck and mire or decay; ‘From Home to the Garden Centre The Forest of Dean’ makes the forest viscous with industrial leavings: ‘a forest still oozing iron, / bedrocks greased with ore.’ Nature is dangerous, with a hint of the butcher shop’s blood and offal: 

Birds, shrews, mice 
pried from the white portcullis 
of the cat’s teeth 

Mostly, though, things are humid and mouldy: ‘Our new spades prise a lid of dry soil / from loam riddled with red ants, rotten bulbs / last years hyacinths that failed to hatch / nipped and leached by microbes.’ Or, from ‘My Black Gardens’: ‘I relinquish my black gardens /  matted kelp, ripe bladderwrack. / I lose skins’. Sloughing and relinquishing extends to people, relationships: ‘A spider trails its tiny shadow / across the bathroom tiles. / Your heat is gone but there are scents’. ‘Writing Him Out’ is a nicely done ‘breakup poem’ about the ink running out (writing this poem presumably) and then rinsing the pen and flushing the watery residue: ‘The plughole glugged up stained water / then swallowed him down for good.’ 

This flowage is amplified in several poems about running water and rivers. Poets like rivers because they’re analogous to verse as well as to life. And Paker has several river poems, the best of which associates family members and friends with kinds of rivers: 

My aunt’s river grazes its banks 
and widens 
Rocks are loosed to salt her river 
        […] 
My uncle’s river remembers its monks 
their nights rowing to secret mass 
prows cutting water bonds 
to rock chapels in the gorge 

And: 

This morning my river was high 
green and urgent with rain 
rushing light and leaves toward the estuary. 

Rivers, though, are just a little too dramatic for Parker; the mood of ‘Quiet Water’ with its pipe ‘bent up from mud / its leak snaking through outgrass and deadnettle / twitching each stem,’ the field getting sodden, surprising the unwary. She favors a sense of decay, or decadence in poems that are astringently opulent. No more so than in ‘Lizzie’, her poem about the poems that Dante Gabriel Rossetti buried with his wife and then had exhumed: 

They plucked out his book 
with a bible and a worm 
leaves edged red 
bound in calfskin 
disinfectant reek 
when he unpeeled the rags. 

Against this high drama (romantic but creepy!), Parker counterpoints the hum drum of modern wordprocessing; ‘I spell-check / save as / rename / print / close / shut down.’ Parker is being ironic or self-mocking here, if she uses a word processor, her sensibility is of the fountain pen – the piercing of the cartridge, the flow of ink, the sharpness of the nib. 

Lurking behind this reference to a fountain pen is Seamus Heaney’s famous injunction to his pen, ‘I’ll dig with it’. Dig, Parker does, into genealogy, history, and the land, freighting her poems with these connections.

 

Reproduced with permission of PN Review. Full article available here.

 

 

Review by Dilys Wood, Artemis Poetry

Thursday, November 1, 2018

In Her Shambles is a first full collection from Elizabeth Parker following her pamphlet Antinopolis (Eyewear Aviator, 2016). Parker continues to offer the ‘fresh and often visceral experience’ I noted in Antinopolis (review, ARTEMISpoetry, issue 18). She combines a contemporary outlook, prosody and some references to current issues (migration, lonely people) with a strikingly personal approach and vision. There is little conventional content, other than, understandably, poems about relationships and losses, which include the very moving ‘Rescues’ (about her father). A series of preoccupations – not quite obsessions – link poems. One theme is layers: the mind overlays one perception with another; dwells simultaneously on past and present; is flooded by images from recent reading; or, in a more concrete image, “the child staring into your tank... floats his eye on your eye”, ‘Sand Cat’. The ‘layering’ theme may leech into her choice of poetic form, as in ‘Station’ where lines about a parting are interleaved with the Kavanagh poem ‘On Raglan Road’. Other chains of imagery include presences and ghosts; the gathering and final effacement of memories (“I gather my dead / I am the last to taste their sweetness”, ‘My Black Gardens’); the uses of our hands, what they tell us about past lives / ageing, the seduction of touch, the part played by hands in hominid development. Parker’s vision continues to embrace visceral images (“I swipe lines through rooms / soft with dust / lift a finger grey-capped / with you or us”, ‘Clean’; and – a poem about the last stages of life – “She slides a hand beneath him, / finds his shirt soaked in heat / where his blood has pooled”, ‘She Paints Him’). In poetry led by the imagination, as this is, inventiveness is sometimes close to contrivance. I found certain explorations – “Rivers”, for example, linking family members with characteristics of rivers – over-extended. By contrast, ‘My Black Gardens’ – a poem in the voice of the ocean – is a finely sustained threnody: “I give up my dead / their skins, their splintered shells. / I take pebbles ... I relinquish pebbles”. Parker largely succeeds in avoiding templates, taking us on mind-journeys which, at best, are convincing, compelling, navigated by true instinct.

 

 

Review by Rosie Jackson, Ink Sweat and Tears

Monday, October 29, 2018

This is a book of translucencies. Nothing is over-solid or overstated, nothing prosaic, yet the poems have an energy and exactness that capture relationships, places, people with unusually fine detail. Take the opening poem, ‘Crockery’. The ‘you’ it’s addressed to, never named, could be a lover, friend, anyone, but instead of being described directly, they are seen aslant, summoned by their reflections in chrome and crockery, their lip marks on a glass.

‘The wine glass has peeled a crescent from your mouth
each crease ridging the grease. I can’t look at you.’

This sets the tone for the whole of this debut collection: unexpected, lucent, precise, sharp, inventive, daring, controlled, but never heavy handed. The touch is so deft you almost think it happens by accident, then you realize how carefully crafted the poems are, and it comes as no surprise to discover Parker has a first class degree in literature and creative writing from Warwick University and an MA in mythology from Bristol. Her learning comes through in literary allusions: Titus Andronicus, Thomas Chatterton, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, but they are woven with skill, the learning never intrudes.

From Titus Andronicus, for example, Parker takes the story of Lavinia, raped then mutilated by having her tongue cut out and hands amputated so she can’t utter or write the names of her attackers. But in Parker’s beautiful reworking, in ‘Following Lavinia,’ ‘Lavinia Writes’ – and perhaps implicitly in the last poem in the collection ‘Writing him Out’ – these outrages are dealt with by a mute resistance which will not give up, the language lyrical and far-reaching.

‘They took her tongue, her hands
so she tried to write with driftwood, sand.

The sea was too strong
her words little caves water curled up in
blunting their edges.

She tried to speak again
carved deeper.’ (from ‘Following Lavinia’).

The feminism here is implicit, understated, finding a louder voice in ‘Lavinia Writes’, where the whole story becomes a parable of the silenced abused woman trying to find a language.

Other characters include a piper in Edinburgh playing Kavanagh’s On Raglan road, a piano tuner, various relatives and friends treated as water in the lyrical ‘Rivers’, but most of the figures in these poems are unnamed. ‘Woolworths’ evokes a woman through personal memories, caught in strong images, but we never know who she is. There’s a female stranger on a train in ‘10.30 To Severn Beach’. Another unnamed woman makes a white vase that seems to speak of her attempt to create and keep something beautiful, pure, inviolate. Again, images capture delicately thin yet telling slices of life. But identities, plots live under the surface. Parker never makes the mistake of milking things for meaning. She doesn’t labour points, doesn’t draw out morals, knows when to stop, when to leave the phase or the poem to stand for itself. All is oblique, hinted at, told slant.

Nor is there any one poetic form, nothing is allowed to solidify into a predictable form or shape. Instead there’s a dextrous mix of mostly 2, 3 and 4 line verses, with minimal punctuation, the text unassuming but contemporary on the page.

In the simply named ‘Lizzie’, Parker splices together the process of deleting and editing word files with Dante Gabriel Rossetti exhuming his late wife Elizabeth Siddal’s grave in Highgate so he could publish the poetry he had buried with her. Parker has researched this in detail, but refrains from writing a predictable narrative of re-enactment, instead breaking up the story with contemporary touches to create a reflection on the process of textual deletion and retrieval.

Biography isn’t always relevant, but the fact of Parker growing up in her parents’ garden centre in the Forest of Dean is surely an influence on the way she writes with such wonderful detail about the green world. There are plants, sunlight and water, a love of nature that is earthed as well as transcendent, an intuitive connection to roots, bulbs, soil, magnolia, spades, fern fronds, what lives on the surface and what lies beneath, all that is burgeoning, blossoming, seeding, lying in wait. Here too, Parker knows how to see what is out of the frame, beyond our usual way of seeing.

I should add that the book is also beautifully produced, as we have come to expect from Seren. The front cover collage by Maria Rivans, showing the head of Audrey Hepburn sprouting a surreal fascinator of birds, boats, moths, flowers, ferns, zebras, prams, women, is exquisite and utterly apt.

 

 

Review by Sophie Baggott, Wales Arts Review

Thursday, August 9, 2018

In Her Shambles is a misnomer. Virtually nothing of a shambolic nature is to be gleaned from the women occupying Elizabeth Parker’s debut poetry collection. On the contrary, we encounter female beacons of self-control, confidence, woman-to-woman solidarity. Women are integral, propping up the book’s spine with poise and the occasional on-point put-down of a ghostly “him”. For me, this book felt like an ode to women’s togetherness in every sense.

More than once, Parker actively seeks to embolden established literary female figures. First, she prises Shakespeare’s Lavinia from the canon’s clutches. Lavinia, who in Titus Andronicus suffers the mutilation of her hands and tongue by her rapists, features in two poems; the first of which infuriated me until I reached the latter. In ‘Following Lavinia – IV. Their Names’, Parker renders useless the means of communication that the playwright had afforded her: writing with a stump held in her mouth. Yet in Parker’s first Lavinia poem, nature works against her:

The sea was too strong

her words little caves water curled up in

blunting their edges.

The poem ends:

The sea was proud with storm

… a  nonsense of weed

silenced the sand. 

Thirteen pages later, Lavinia makes a surprise comeback, and finally ‘Writes’. The first-person narrator in this poem scrawls sentences ‘bright, long’ over chairs, walls, and floors; she tears at the “stitcheries”; she watches a “plughole suck pink water” – an image that saunters back in the very last lines of the book. Though repeatedly sewn back up, Lavinia concludes, triumphant: “I tear more, free more / until I am fluent.” 

In this poem and in many others, Parker plucks various images and words planted elsewhere in the collection. Three words, “breach the dam”, appear in both ‘Lavinia Writes’ and the poem that follows, ‘Dry’. The first refers to an unleashing of words; the second to the throes of a love affair. The pages of In Her Shambles form a slick assembly line of continuously recycled items. As mentioned, the plughole resurfaces as a tool in the final poem, ‘Writing Him Out’. Here, it “glugged” down the remains of one of Parker’s vague males. A mudlark would find a whole host of treasures swept in recurrently: bladderwrack, garlic, fallow deer, cutlery, shadows on walls, clay, to name a few.

A pattern among my favourite pieces in Parker’s collection is a dual framing technique, flitting from stanza to stanza between two connected lenses. One such poem, ‘Manus’, gravitates back and forth from an article about an executioner in the The Observer on the poet’s lap to her partner playing the piano across the room. The mirroring aspect lies in the use of their hands (manus) in their endeavours. For me, the collection’s pièce de résistance is ‘Lizzie’, a poem that draws parallels between Rossetti’s exhumation of his muse (by which he reshapes her according to his desires) and the writer digging out old emails, texts and call logs from an ex-partner. Both Rossetti and Parker are recalling lost loves: one through Pre-Raphaelite “lyric” and “metaphor”, the other through SIM cards and Times New Roman.

To close, back to the beginning – the cover image, by Maria Rivans, is a beautiful collage of animals, flowers, people, vehicles spiralling out of Audrey Hepburn’s head. This, while bordering on a little cluttered perhaps, again doesn’t resemble the abject disorder we might expect from the title – it is vibrant, thriving. And Parker’s poem ‘Blooms’ gives weight in words to the positive impression cast by the cover: “While he stayed shut, her throat bloomed / long-stemmed flowers”.

So, a shambles this collection is not. To me, this book elevates, celebrates women – Parker almost does it an injustice by ‘shambolising’ in its naming. This is a confident, measured debut; and while I wasn’t wowed by every page, the star poems of In Her Shambles dazzle enough for the collection to emit an exceedingly warm glow.

Review by Fiona Owen, Gwales

Monday, July 30, 2018

From the first poem in this impressive debut collection, there is a sense of mastery, of language taut yet tensile, of breath-taking imagery. The opening scene in ‘Crockery’ presents someone the speaker can’t look at, someone who we glimpse through fragmentary reflections in ‘glass, chrome, china’, the ‘pale glaze on white plates’. ‘I can’t look at you’ is repeated, accentuating the drama taking place, something edgy across a table, a domestic scene that seems to have gone wrong. The speaker’s gaze is averted so that, ‘Instead, I watch your coffee ripple/when you knock the table with your knee’, a prelude, it is suggested, to leaving, when ‘glasses clear/spoons lose their dash of colour’. 

 

The third poem ‘Clasp’ seems to portray an afterwards, the speaker cooking with garlic and noticing, ‘One of the first absences … a missing scent’. There is an incredible precision in this poet’s descriptions, such as, ‘She scrunches onion paper/pinches a tooth of garlic from its husk’, and her titles further the poems, as here, adding depth to their themes, clasp working as both verb and noun. Here, we have hands at work peeling garlic, sharpening a pencil ‘he enjoyed/yellow and thick as a finger … with his clasp knife’. Now, though, ‘she notices her shadow alone on the walls’. 

 

Hands feature in other poems. ‘Rescues’ is a tender eulogy to the speaker’s father, his hands used for rescue – of the fallow doe, the pipistrelle, house martin chicks, ‘Birds, shrews, mice/pried from the white portcullis/of the cat’s teeth…’, spiders, a buzzard and, finally, ‘His three daughters/calling to him from their cities/…/saving us each time.’ Hands are watched, explored, used to paint with, make a vase, play piano, cook with, and, crucially, write with. In ‘Manus’, the poem juxtaposes ‘an essay arguing [hands’] evolution for use of weapons’ with someone playing the piano; words on a page propounding a theory set beside ‘your rhythmic hands/bridged for Clair de Lune’. These are the same hands, it is suggested, that the speaker’s ‘skin remembers’ when ‘You tapped time on my spine’. Violence and love-making, angling the aim of a gun or making music, are thus placed together as potentials of human being and doing – yet we are left with the music of love which, ‘altered my rhythm/lifted fine threads/until my blood re-tuned.’ 

 

In the two ‘Lavinia’ poems, the loss – of not only hands, but tongue – comes to the fore, but you have to know who Lavinia is, for Parker doesn’t patronise her readers. She simply provides a quotation from Shakespeare’s bloodiest tragedy, Titus Andronicus, as epigraph for each poem, so you know it is that Lavinia, the character who is first barbarously raped, then silenced by having her tongue cut out and her hands lopped off. 

 

‘Following Lavinia’ is a sequence of four poems, three of them titled with a man’s name and the fourth poem called simply ‘Their names’. In each of the first three poems, the speaker reads the play with reference to each of the named men, such as: ‘I read the hunt … sitting at his desk’; ‘I watched the hunt with Paul’. In the final poem, though, the focus is purely on ‘her’: ‘They took her tongue, her hands/so she tried to write with driftwood, sand.’ 

 

There is a powerful sense created of striving for expression, of valour against the odds, against forces too strong. Parker has a canny way of bringing together tangential parts that point towards meaning – yet nothing is laid on with a trowel. Here, there is the suggestion of struggle, of how hard it is for a woman’s voice to be heard. 

 

‘Lavinia Writes’, which comes a little later in the collection, picks up the themes again, going for the jugular, the wound itself: ‘I dipped a finger in my mouth/strummed then picked the stitches/in the root of my stolen tongue.’ Most stanzas include ‘I’ and a verb: ‘I tipped …’, ‘I sign …’, ‘I write bright, long sentences over chairs, walls, floors’, the wound being the source: ‘I tipped my head over paper/let my words pump, breach the dam/fill fibres, glut pores.’ The theme of being without a voice, without dexterity of expression, carries its horrors, but finding voice despite the obstacles is what triumphs, what heals: ‘I tear more, free more/until I am fluent’. 

 

Fiona Owen 

 

A review from www.gwales.com, with the permission of the Welsh Books Council. 

 

Review by Judy Darley, SkyLightRain

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

I recently had a conversation with poet Elizabeth Parker in which I mentioned that post-it notes are a reviewer’s greatest ally. They’re a tool that can work brilliantly, but also have their fallibilities. With In Her Shambles, I ended up needing almost as many post-it notes as pages, as every poem contained lines to call me back, and make me want to re-absorb their power.

Parker is a master of shimmering last lines, drawing you quietly to a crescendo – a moment of thrill or unease. In each case, the final few words lie in wait, ready to tilt you off kilter, steadied only by the surety of Parker’s pen.

In Lasagne, the making of a meal represents a deeply rooted love affair, in which the ending stanza speaks volumes: “I peg pasta/ between fingers and thumbs/ lay it down for him.”

In Lavinia Writes, a eulogy of sorts to Shakespeare’s ill-fated character from ‘Titus Andronicus’, that ultimate declaration is a shout of rebellion, as the silenced victim, her tongue cut out, finds a way to share her anger by unpicking the stitches of her wound: “I tear more, free more/ until I am fluent.”

Elegantly unexpected word pairings heighten the readers’ awareness of the world Parker inhabits, where, with the precision of a botanist annotating slides, the poet describes sensations and experiences with tender familiarity.

In Rescues, she paints a portrait of her father through an itemised list of the creatures she’s witnessed him save, from pipistrelle bats to his trio of daughters. With each we’re given a sense of strength and compassion, portrayed deftly through descriptions like “black fruits he gently unpeeled/ to show us wings laced with limb.”

A passion for family and friends bobs surfacewards throughout, along with a respect for personalities from literature and history. Parker seems drawn to strong women who have been badly wronged, as well as to the stubborn savagery of the natural world, from brambles splitting bin bags, to the rivers she describes as representing members of her inner circle: “My aunt’s river grazes its banks/ and widens./ Rocks are loosed to salt her river.”

Sensual and elemental, this is a skilful collection that murmurs of emotions heaving just out of sight and on the edge of hearing. Parker seems to have no qualms about exposing her own vulnerabilities, which makes her work all the more breathtaking. In Her Shambles is a celebration of women, families and nature, astonishing in its originality while offering up disarmingly recognisable views.

Through reading it you may learn to see your own surroundings with fresh eyes. But the magic of this collection is that it’s likely you’ll catch a reflection of yourself, and find yourself wondering how, exactly, this poet knew.

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